WCNC , WFMY 5:44 PM. EST October 18, 2016
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Recent flooding in North Carolina from Hurricane Matthew has the Better Business Bureau warning those searching for a new car to be weary of flood-damaged cars.
The BBB expects "submariners," which are vehicles that have had water damages, to hit local markets soon.
After a vehicle has incurred flood damage, the insurance company may declare it a total loss. When a car is declared a total loss, it should be sent to the junkyard. However, the BBB says that isn't always the case.
"Many of these cars are often sold at auction as 'salvage' vehicles," and that "they may end up for sale in used car lots, classified ads or online on Craigslist," the BBB says.
Worse yet, the bureau warns that it may be hard to tell if a car is a 'submariner' after a thorough cleaning, new carpet and floor mats.
"Buying a car that has been exposed to flood waters can have hidden problems including mold and mildew, rusty wiring, computer malfunctions, airbags that don't inflate and more."
Before hitting the car markets, keep the Better Business Bureau's 10 tips to help spot flood-damaged vehicles.
1. Ask to see the title of a used car. Check the date and place of transfer to see if the car came from a flood-damaged area and if the title is stamped 'salvage.'
2. Check all gauges on the dashboard to make sure they are accurate, and look for signs of water.
3. Test the equipment including lights, windshield wipers, turn signals, sound system, heater and air conditioner several times to make sure they work.
4. Flex some wires under the dash to see if they bend of crack, since wet wires become brittle upon drying and can crack or fail at any time.
5. Check the interior of the trunk and glove compartment, and beneath the seats and dashboard for signs of mud, rust or water damage.
6. Look for discolored, faded or stained upholstery and carpeting. Carpeting that has been replaced may fit too loosely or may not match the interior color.
7. Check for a well-defined line, or 'watermark,' and for musty odors resulting from mildew.
8. Check the car's dealer's BBB review to see if they have a history of complaints.
9. Ask the dealer directly if the car has been damaged by floodwater.
10. Get a vehicle history report based on its VIN number.
Beware of Flood-Damaged Cars
- Hurricanes often create a tsunami of flood cars
- Unscrupulous sellers will try to sell them to unsuspecting buyers
- Obtain an online car history of any suspicious used car
Scammers probably begin dumping affected cars into the used-car inventory within days of a storm's landfall.
Used-vehicle shoppers searching within a few hundred miles of the storm should be particularly wary, but it's not just shoppers in the affected regions who should increase their vigilance. Savvy sellers will move damaged vehicles to unaffected states, where they will retitle the cars before foisting them on unsuspecting buyers. Like gas vapor seeping into a room, storm-damaged flood cars will find their way into every corner of the country.
Flood damage can ruin a vehicle in any number of ways, from eating away the electronics wiring to seizing up mechanical systems, and the damage may not reveal itself for months or even years. Corrosion and rust are insidious, often eating away at sheet metal and components from the inside out.
Buyer BewareThere are some precautions a used-car shopper can take to minimize, if not eliminate, the chances of buying one of these future rust buckets.
Depending on whether the seller is a licensed dealer or a private owner, duped buyers may have some legal recourse if, after purchase, their used car turns out to be flood damaged, but that's not guaranteed. Avoiding a flood-damaged vehicle ultimately falls to the used-car shopper, and the most effective way to avoid being scammed is to be alert to the danger and look for a few telltale signs.
Aggressively inspecting any used vehicle being considered for purchase is the most effective prescription for dodging one with terminal water damage.
This is best accomplished by a qualified mechanic; however, if a mechanic isn't available or you want to avoid the expense of a professional, you may be able to identify a problem vehicle yourself with a preemptive inspection.
What to Look ForAlthough you won't be able to peek into every nook and cranny, there are some areas where obvious signs of damage lurk. Here are a few places to inspect and what to look for:
- Check under the vehicle's carpets or floor covering for mud or rust, and don't forget the trunk.
- Give the underside of the carpets a sniff test. Do they smell like mildew?
- Mud and debris collect in hard-to-clean spaces, such as under the hood and in the trunk.
- Rust on the heads of any exposed screws under the hood, around the doors or in the trunk indicates exposure to excess moisture.
- Mud and debris on the underside of panels and brackets is another good sign the car has been under water.
One More ThingAutotrader always recommends obtaining the history of every used car being considered. A number of online sites, such as CARFAX.com and AutoCheck.com, provide such reports for a nominal cost. Pay special attention to the vehicle's title history. CARFAX has a link to a dedicated "flood damage" site (www.flood.CARFAX.com ) that can be effective in rooting out flood-damaged cars.
What It Means to YouBuying a used car is a big investment. A little vigilance up front about flood-damaged vehicles can save you from a big headache down the road.
Protecting Your Current VehicleIf a storm is headed your way, there are a few things you can do to protect your existing vehicle:
- Make sure you have a duplicate copy of your car's registration in a safe place
- Have your lender's phone number handy -- in the event of damage to your vehicle, they may allow you to skip a few payments
- Along those lines, have your insurance provider's phone number accessible, as well as a copy of your insurance card
- Write down your vehicle's VIN number
- Take a photo of your car so that you can compare the before and after in case there's a question of any damage
One of the many risks of buying a used car is that you don't know its history. Sellers have an arsenal of supplies and tactics to dress up a used car, even if it has been severely damaged. Flood-damaged cars fall into this category.
If you're thinking of buying a used car, be sure to know how to recognize water damage from flooding.
Dangers of Flooded CarsFlood-damaged cars are very unreliable vehicles. While vehicle rebuilders may be able to hide most of the cosmetic flood damage, it is very difficult to completely fix an engine that has been flooded.
The car may look decent on the outside, but could be rusting from the inside—putting you and your passengers in danger, and keeping you at risk for major costly repairs.
Flood Damaged Cars & Salvage TitlesCars that have undergone damage from a flood are frequently considered a total loss and, if refurbished, will carry with them a salvage title. A salvage title is an important indicator of a car that has had serious damage. Buying a salvage title car isn't always a bad idea, but buying a flooded car is.
Don't be afraid to ask about the nature of the damage on a salvage title car, and walk away if it's been flooded. No matter the price, that will never be a good deal.
Signs of a Flood-Damaged Car
SmellUse your common senses to sniff out water damage on a car. The most obvious signs of flood damage are the same as anywhere: smell and watermarks. If you pick up a damp, mildewy scent, be suspicious of where the car has been.
That smell is strongest if the car has been sitting with its windows closed for a while. Equally telling is the opposite smell of cleaning agents and car fresheners trying to mask the mold.
SightWater damage is sometimes visible. Think of what happens to fabric, like on a couch, when you spill a glass of water. Even dry, that ring never goes away.
Look for those marks on all the interior fabrics of the used car, including:
- Ceiling fabric
- Seat belts.
Sometimes you will also see mud or silt left over from the flood. This and other debris get caught in all the nooks and crannies of a car, and are hard to clean out. Be sure to check under the rugs, seats, and spare tire in the trunk for any pooling water or muddy residue. Headlights also trap moisture, so don't forget to take a close look at those.
Rust can also be a sign of water damage that is hard to conceal. Rust on the inside of the car will be especially telling since that is one place rust shouldn't show up through normal wear and tear.
Electrical and Mechanical ComponentsA car with extensive water damage may have problems with its electrical components. Test out every electrical element, including its:
Additional TipsRegardless of whether you suspect flood damage, there are steps you should always take when shopping for a used car. First, consider paying a little extra to have an experienced and trustworthy mechanic look over the car for you.
You should also consider purchasing a vehicle history report. This step helps you know where the car has been and whether it was in any accidents—separate from flooding—that could impact its value and safety.
Even armed with this knowledge, it's not always easy to spot a flood-damaged car. Your best bet: avoid buying used cars from recently flooded areas.